Back in 2006, director Paul Greengrass took a break from making mediocre spy films to make United 93 (France/UK/USA), a controversial but truly remarkable film that showed that the filmmaker’s instincts in building tension and allowing it to explode that had served him fairly well in those spy films could actually combine with the emotional depth and hint of intellectualism that he had previously shown in The Theory of Flight (UK 1998) to make something far better than his earlier work—a film that had something to say, knew how to handle its characters’ emotions, and knew how to manipulate the audience’s emotions. Since, he has returned to the spy series with The Bourne Ultimatum (USA/Germany 2008) and tried to meld his action skills with some relatively obvious intellectual content in the surprisingly effective Green Zone (France/USA/Spain/UK 2010) but not really returned to the depth of United 93.
Story-wise, the film is interesting enough on its face. It’s about a US ship captain whose ship is attacked by pirates who then hold him hostage when their attempt to take the ship fails. The US government then tries to get him out.
Captain Phillips is a film about the destructive power of competition (particularly economic competition), and it never loses its focus even as it tells a taut, powerful story with multiple interesting characters and excellent acting. Greengrass is not content to tell the true story that would surely have garnered his film plenty of attention or tell the audience, “Hey, in case you have forgotten, Tom Hanks can still act.” Instead, he makes a point and pushes it hard throughout the film, exactly as a director should do.
The film opens with its title character discussing with his wife that he worries about their son’s ability to find work in an increasingly competition-driven world. He laments, “When I was starting out you could make it if you put your head down and you just did your work. But young guys coming up now, companies want things fast and cheaper. Fifty guys compete for every job.” The point of the film is made right there in the first few minutes and it never lets up.
Throughout, we hear the pirates, Phillips, and others talk about “playing games,” seeing everything that they do as a series of attempted “tricks” in order to “win” over the other side. The one exception—the one group of people who “put their heads down and just do their work”—is the SEAL team that actually gets Phillips out. There is no hint of game playing from them, even when they do use a trick. They show up speaking no more than necessary, carrying only the equipment necessary for the job, and showing absolutely no sense of any life beyond the mission or sense of humor or empathy. The first naval negotiator attempts to use sympathy to get the pirates to talk to him, and it doesn’t work. The SEAL negotiator stays completely business-like in his approach, and it does work. Keeping their heads down and just doing their work is what works, not trying to win some big game.
The Somalis explain that the reason they have turned to piracy is that the US and similar wealthy nations have taken away all of their fish, leaving them incapable of using their greatest resource—the neighboring ocean—in order to survive. Economic competition has driven them to desperation and led to the United States creating its own enemy. In the end, when Phillips exclaims that it’s not his blood covering his body, it’s an exclamation not just of personal agony at what he’s been forced to endure but a plea for exoneration from his own part in creating the situation as an agent of US commerce. It’s a cry of sympathy for his former captors, even as he feels the relief of his escape. That entire scene works as something more powerful and deeper than what could be a melodramatic and overlong ending because of the groundwork that Greengrass has laid throughout the film with his focus on his point.
Visually, Greengrass and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd use the same reliance on long takes and extra-shaky handheld cameras that they used to add to the realism and tension of United 93 (and that Ackroyd also used on The Hurt Locker [Kathryn Bigelow, USA 2008]) once again to excellent effect. They even add the extra element of using much smoother camerawork when showing us the SEAL team, again emphasizing the point that they are just keeping their heads down and doing their jobs. There isn’t really anything innovative in this work, but it is very effective at making the film’s point even stronger than it otherwise would be. They are a bit overly conventional in their use of color and lighting, but those are really very minor problems with how well the film does everything else.
The acting is another very strong point for the film, highlighted by an excellent lead performance from Tom Hanks. Hanks plays the intelligent, brave, heroic Captain Phillips with a remarkable physicality and strength that I would never have expected from the 57-year-old, walking with a strong upright stance and holding his shoulders high throughout, like the strong leader that he is. Then, after an already impressive performance throughout the film, he has to play that cathartic breakdown at the end, and plays it so gut-wrenchingly well that the entire performance seems even better for its presence. Meanwhile, Barkhad Abdi plays the only one of the pirates who really has any room to show any depth with an excellent amount of subtlety, giving us some insight into the tension and intelligence hiding just underneath his surface at all times. Nobody else really has room to do anything, but certainly no one stands out in a bad way.
Henry Jackman’s score deserves some credit as well, as it fits the mood of the film quite well but never draws too much attention to itself. At a few points, it really called to mind Billy Joel’s song “The Downeaster ‘Alexa,’” a song about a desperate fisherman whose livelihood has been taken away by industry. Throughout, it uses strong rhythms to add to the feeling of action and backs off to allow tension to grow. It’s a fairly restrained but excellent bit of work from Jackman.
Overall, this is an excellent film that hopefully will get Greengrass the attention he deserved but never got for United 93. It’s a film that has a point and makes it with every aspect of its work and every turn of its plot. In other words, it’s exactly what a film is supposed to be.